Wiedmer: UTC bosses not inclined to end John Shulman's run

Wiedmer: UTC bosses not inclined to end John Shulman's run

February 8th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

John Shulman watches the UTC Mocs during a game at McKenzie Arena in this file photo.

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Document: Coach John Shulman's contract

UTC coach John Shulman's contract.

Ten years ago next month, former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga chancellor Dr. Bill Stacy made perhaps the most difficult personnel decision of his professional career.

Staring into the eyes of then Mocs basketball coach Henry Dickerson, Stacy told the coach of five years that his overall record of 72-73 would not warrant a sixth season.

"It had absolutely nothing to do with his character or the way he ran his program," Stacy said Tuesday. "Henry's just the finest gentleman around. I wouldn't hesitate to have a son of mine play for him."

But most coaches aren't terminated for what goes on outside the field or court. Most are let go for the cold, harsh numbers on a scoreboard.

"The productivity in terms of wins and losses just wasn't where we felt it needed to be," Stacy continued, "wasn't where the people who followed the program expected it to be. So we talked that day about giving somebody else a chance."

Few would disagree that current UTC basketball coach John Shulman is Dickerson's equal as a gentleman, husband, father and community volunteer. His work with the Boys' and Girls' Club is well-documented. His annual spot on the King of the Mountain Road Race "cone crew" is inspiring, especially since his children no longer attend the Good Shepherd School that the race benefits.

Or as UTC athletic director Rick Hart noted, "John has a knack for bringing people together, making a difference in the community."

Yet as the Mocs have lost a program-worst (in the Division I era) seven straight games and slipped to 9-16 overall, Hart also admits that his eighth-year coach is tearing the UTC fan base apart.

"It's been a little unique," he said. "There is a group of fans that is passionate that John is not the right person to lead our program. But there seem to be almost as many people who are just as passionate in their belief in John. Where John's concerned, there's not a lot of gray area."

Unfortunately, there is increasingly little gray area between Dickerson's five seasons and Shulman's last five seasons, including this one.

One game under .500 overall, Dickerson's teams were 40-38 in the SoCon with two division crowns won or shared and no NCAA bids. Shulman's last five years (including this season) have produced a 76-80 overall record, a 45-43 league mark, three division titles won or shared and one NCAA tournament berth.

Yet chancellor Dr. Roger Brown doesn't sound as if he's ready to give somebody else a chance.

"It's been a terribly disappointing season," Brown said Tuesday afternoon. "However, I feel that John has contributed an awful lot more than wins and losses. His overall body of work is very impressive."

It certainly began impressively. The Mocs won 20 games, shocked Tennessee inside the Vols' Thompson-Boling Arena and won the Southern Conference tournament to reach the Mocs' first NCAA tournament in eight years during Shulman's first season, 2004-05.

The next season produced a highly respectable 19-13 mark and a return trip to the SoCon tourney final. But despite another NCAA bid in 2009, no season since has produced more than 18 wins, two have ended at 15-18 and home attendance has fallen below 3,000 most of this season.

The frustration over that slide has not been lost on Brown.

"One of my biggest surprises as a chancellor has been the absolute passion of our fans and donors," he said. "They live and die with the Mocs. So, yes, there's been a steady drumbeat about the program in terms of letters, phone calls and emails to my office.

"Our answer has been: 'Please understand we know your frustration. We're just as frustrated, and Coach Shulman is just as frustrated and he's working every day to fix it.'

"But I believe this, too: I wouldn't be surprised if this thing gets turned around and the Mocs have a deep [SoCon] tourney run."

And given that hope and belief, UTC fans shouldn't expect Shulman to follow Dickerson into the list of former Mocs coaches any time soon.

Beyond that _ though both Brown and Hart deny it _ Shulman's contract surely helps his job security. Were UTC to fire him this spring, the school would have to buy out the remaining two years of his $138,000-a-year pact, which means paying off Shulman, then hiring a new coach and staff could easily produce a one-time hit of $600,000.

"It's not a bad product," Hart said. "We're just not winning. But I feel better about the management of our basketball program than any other year I've been here. Recruiting, academics and compliance are the best I've seen since I've been here. Unfortunately, we've taken a step back on the court. But this is the direction we want to go."

Amazing how much difference 10 years can make in expectations for a once-proud program.